THE FRAGILE: BESPOKE
First: Trent did nothing wrong. The Fragile is a great album. This is just a different spin on the sequencing. For me, it’s a way to make sense of a mind-boggling volume of music. It’s my concept, imposed upon a concept album. Your mileage will vary.
Next: Is it a concept album, though? Unlike The Downward Spiral, there doesn’t seem to be much narrative (or momentum) to The Fragile. My solution: separate the songs that say “narrative” to me from the songs that have a more “vibe” vibe. Think of my resequenced two-disc set like this:
Left is a story, and a sequel to TDS. (The title could mean, “After I hit bottom, this is what’s Left”)
Right is an abstract, expressionist mirror of the first disc. Each track is a more condensed reprise of the first disc’s cycle. (The narrator tries again and again until he gets it Right).
Last: A bit part of sequencing is flow, and there are obviously lots of jarring cuts in what I’ve done. Some of them could probably stay. Others could be smoothed over. I’ve made a couple of suggestions, but I welcome constructive feedback.
1 – Even Deeper
You can thank Blake for suggesting this opener in jest. Here, it’s a prologue, or a bridge from NIN’s previous work. “You think we reached the bottom of the Downward Spiral? Prepare to go Even Deeper.” Also, what says “concept album” more clearly than starting your first song with the lyric, “I woke up today…”
2 – Into the Void
This song has always felt like it should be Chapter One. “Talking to myself all the way to the station…” is brilliant, sparking questions and seeding insights about the schizophrenic nature of what follows. It reveals that the “You” and “Me” in the rest of the album are the same person, and that each destination is only a waystation for the next journey. The song’s refrain (“Tried to save myself but my self keeps slipping away”) is a decent summary of a main Fragile theme: struggling to recover one’s health & happiness; self-sabotaging; repeat.
3 – Complication
An instrumental track early, foreshadowing many to come. Instead of using The Frail here, I chose this banger, whose title also means “inciting incident” – that is, the event that kicks a story into gear. We get to imagine what sort of event sends our Narrator into the newest cycle. Or else: the details don’t matter, cuz there’s always something.
4 – Somewhat Damaged
This aggro track opens NIN’s Left CD. That works for me okay, but I’ve positioned it here to launch the Gollum/Smeagol argument that dominates the rest of the disc. Now its title cheekily answers the question posed three songs ago (“Just how damaged have I become?”). Meanwhile, “Like you said, you and me, we will make it through” is an accusation from the same voice that will sing “We’re in This Together” three songs later. Somewhat damaged, indeed.
5 – Where is Everybody?
Not my favourite song. In its original placement (after “Into the Void,” early on Disc 2), it feels like a let-down. Here, at least, it seems to build on the cranky, lonely energy of “Somewhat Damaged.” It’s probably the most verbose NIN song ever, yet being so overcrowded feels like it contradicts the question in the title – a classic Trent paradox. (Side note: It was very tempting to put this track in front of “Underneath it All,” as if Trent were setting up an esoteric, gothy schoolyard joke, ie. “Under there.” “Underwear?”)
6 – The Frail
There’s no separating this song from the next one, and I’ve left them fairly close to their original spots in NIN’s Left. If you’re a fan of the Smeagol/Gollum concept, you’ve probably already come up with the notion that “Frail” and “Wretched” are two personas in the Narrator’s mind, the former too traumatized to even speak (for now). Headcanon aside, it’s a welcome moment of calm halfway through the disc – a deep breath before the next plunge.
7 – The Wretched
Such a great song. “Now you’re one of us” is vicious and spiteful, but not quite accusatory. If this is a story, neither one of the “main characters” is the villain. They might scream at each other, but they have a common enemy in “God himself” aka fate, or depression, or whatever “complication” hits the spokes this time around. And since “The Wretched” are clearly in the same piss and shit, why not proceed directly to…
8 – We’re in This Together
Another stone cold classic, saying almost the same things as “The Wretched” but with a polar opposite tone. As a NIN fan who first learned the ways of gloom from Pretty Hate Machine (on cassette!), I cannot overstate the shock I felt upon first hearing Trent sing “We will make it through somehow” – with conviction! In my concept-album version of Fragile, this song is Henry V at Agincourt, rallying the troops against impossible odds. This new energy (carried forward here by putting “The Way Out is Through” next) is what makes The Fragile a different (better?) story than TDS.
9 – The Way Out Is Through
This song might be too non-traditional to fit comfortably on my bespoke Disc 1, but I definitely don’t think it belongs at the top of either disc. I put it here because the “verse” (ie. the part he screams) is still about “We” as opposed to “You” and “Me.” And it still has a rallying, hopeful energy, though it’s more strained and desperate. No matter where it goes, it should be shorter (imagine a smash cut 1:24 into the track).
10 – Just Like You Imagined
This was a hard track to sequence, and I kept trying to squeeze it into the instrumental(-ish) medley on Disc 2, but ultimately I stuck it here, next to “The Fragile” but reversed this time. It’s more than a “Frail”-type warmup track, though. Like Reznor’s best instrumentals, it has a narrative of its own. It’s the aforementioned Agincourt – or, well, the Charge of Light Brigade maybe, ‘cause (surprise!) we’re being set up for a fall.
11 – The Fragile
If the title track were one of the lesser songs, I wouldn’t place it here, at the end of the Left. If it were “merely” a love song, as many of its lyrics suggest, I wouldn’t give it prominence in an album that’s about anything but love. Fortunately, it’s a banger, and deep as fuck. Who is this mind-reading beauty? Who are the ones “picking and picking”? As narrative closure goes, it’s hella ambiguous, but then kinda I want a “To Be Continued” vibe at the end of Disc 1, ya know?
12 – Please
The Fragile contains a lot of experimental material. I’ve back-loaded the weirdest stuff onto Disc 2, not because it’s inferior but because it invites a different kind of listening experience. Let’s start Right off with one of the weirdest, most lyrically abstract songs. “And it keeps repeating” is the mission statement here; every song that follows is a mini-variation of the same vicious cycle explored in detail on Left.
13 – Pilgrimage
This is probably the dullest instrumental track, so let’s get it out of the way early on Disc 2. Abrupt intros and outros are now the norm. The brass and marching drums create a military feel, contrasting sharply with the humility and spirituality implied by the song’s title. By now, every song contains a contradiction of some kind.
14 – No, You Don’t
This track’s lyrics and tone seem to place it in Disc 1 (along with, yeah, its actual spot in the NIN sequence). But it’s also a highly experimental track, and sonically it stands out, almost more a spawn of Broken/Fixed than TDS. So no, I don’t think it belongs on the Left, but it should definitely still follow “Pilgrimage” (personally, I’d cut the first 15 seconds of ambience, or else work it into an outro transition leading to…)
15 – The Day The World Went Away
I think Trent is well aware that he’s being self-indulgent with a two-disc concept album, and I think he sends himself up a bit in this, one of The Fragile’s two “na-na-na” songs. I like how the lyrics come in late, toying with the expectation of another instrumental track… because that’s exactly what we’ve got coming down the pipes. But first…
16 – I’m Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally
A downbeat track that lets us draw a breath before a rather daring plunge. Again, I’d cut the 2-3 seconds of ambience off the top, letting the songs intersect in more direct (if jarring) ways. There really is no narrative thread left at this point, but the line “Could I please come with you?” echoes the isolation and codependency from Disc 1. Or maybe it’s a back-handed invitation to the listener: let’s go on yet another crazy journey!
17 – The Mark Has Been Made
18 – Ripe (With Decay)
19 – La Mer
If this had been the NIN sequence, you can bet critics would still be demanding, “Why the fuck would he put three sludgy, meandering instrumental tracks back-to-back-to-back???” And that very debate would help to elevate The Fragile’s status as a gorgeous, grandiloquent mess. If I were the God of Trent, I’d have him edit together these three beasts (using “10 Miles High” material, or even bits from the instrumentals on Disc 1) into a seamless triptych of enigmatic angst. For a final dollop of pretentiousness, I’d recommend naming them all in French: “La Marque,” “Le Mûr,” et “La Mer.”
20 – The Great Below
Flowing lyrically and sonically from “La Mer,” this arena-scale finale feels well-placed in its original, NIN sequence. Here, I’ve grafted it onto the song that reprises its melody and refrain: “Underneath It All.” And holy hell, what a combo. Imagine a (slightly) tighter transition, and then just… try it.
21 – Underneath It All
I know, right?? It’s a good thing the whole double-album doesn’t convey this kind of relentless anxiety. But it’s a great final note, hammering The Fragile’s main motif into your hindbrain like an industrial-strength earworm. It might as well be the final track of the Right – and it kind of is, with an epilogue in either “Ripe (With Decay)” or, in my case, the aptly-titled…
22 – The Big Come Down
A bonus track, cuz it doesn’t really fit but it’s just too fun to cut. The funky guitar lick is thoroughly unique, and the yelling/singing pattern anticipates future tracks instead of feeling like a retread of anything from elsewhere on The Fragile. After an emotionally draining hour and a half, “The Big Come Down” is like “Get Down Make Love” – a much-needed larf.
…And, in that vein, if you really want to, you can add “Starfuckers, Inc.” as The Fragile’s “Suck.” But I wouldn’t. Cuz it kind of does. Suck. Sorry (not sorry).